Fatema: African-American Poetry

While studying African-American poetry, two poets becomes crucial – Langston Hughes and Imamu Amiri Baraka. Hughes, was one of the most important forerunners of the Harlem Renaissance that sought to establish the Negro identity detached from the white gaze and influence. Baraka led the Black arts movement and played an essential role in establishing black aesthetic in poetry.

Therefore, the two critical essays summarized below are manifestoes to understanding black poetry of the two movements, the Harlem Renaissance and the Black arts movement.

The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain

Hughes’ central argument is to urge the Negro artist to free himself from the shambles of the white gaze to not only accept his true identity but also evoke pride in it through his art. He states that the biggest mountain in front of the Negro artists is aping white identity and mannerisms so much so he is forgetting his own.

The poet begins the essay by recalling that a young Negro poet once told him that he doesn’t want to be identified as a Negro poet rather than just a poet. Hughes takes this as a sign of the young Negro wanting to detach from his cultural identity and become “as much American as possible” (Hughes 140).

Hughes claims that this is the mountain in front of the Negro art, “the desire to pour radical individuality in the pour radical individuality in the mould of American standardisation” (Hughes 140). To explain the loss of identity, Hughes gives the example of middle class black families which look up to white virtues and try to mimic them like going to church every weekend, marrying the lightest woman he can find, going to white theatres and movies etc.  It is no wonder then that the black artists cannot interpret the beauty of his race, because he is taught not to see it or scorn it if he does, replacing it with white habits instead.

Hughes brings out a contrast between the middle-class and the poor blacks. He states that Black ghettos are where the Negro artist will be born. These common people, Hughes states, don’t care about the whites and thus “hold their individuality” (Hughes 140). For this Negro artist that will emerge a whole deal of material is ready if he chooses to write about Negro and white relations.

Hughes abhors the indifference shown to Negro art but not just the whites but by the Black elites too. He mentions the death of prose by Chesnutt and poetry of Dunbar to show how the Negro artists are only looked upon as a freak or a clown. To gain prominence, Negro art has always needed the appropriation of the white man. The Negro artist has survived on the “misunderstanding from his own group and unintentional bribes from the whites” (Hughes 141)

Hughes states that the “Noridcized Negro intelligentsia” (Hughes 141) hates anything that confronts them with their race but Hughes still sees a rising scope for black literature.  He confesses his own poetry is filled with jazz because jazz is “one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America” (Hughes 142) and laments how the elite blacks can’t appreciate Jazz conditioned by white education.

Hughes states that it is thus the Negro artist’s duty to change,

“through the force of his art that old whispering ‘I want to white’ hidden in the aspirations         of his people to ‘why should I be white?’” (Hughes 142)

Therefore, Hughes states that he is ashamed of the artist who instead of painting his own race and culture chooses to paint sunsets because he is, “he fears the strange unwhiteness of own features” (Hughes 142). Thus, he concludes, it is time for the young Negro artist to express his dark-skinned self without shame and stand on top of the racial mountain and “be free within ourselves” (Hughes 143).

Hughes, Langston. “The Negro artist and the Racial Mountain.” Poetry in Theory: An Anthology1900-      2000. Ed. Tom Cook. USA: Blackkwell Publishing, 2004. Print.


Hunting is Not Those Heads on the Wall

Baraka here provides an argument for poetry in forms of privileging the process over the product. He states that the process of poetry is what is poetry rather than the end product. He places thought over art and the western academics replace the process of art with the appreciation of the artefact.

Baraka insists that just as things are not capable of achieving God, it is only the process of art that can bring us closer to God. He calls this the “God Function” (Baraka 386)

Instead of looking at the final artwork, Baraka focuses on the “verb process” (386) – the doing, the coming into being. He states this is why live music is preferred because it lets us enjoy the artefact as it emerges.

Referring to the process as “that” throughout the essay, Baraka states that naming ‘that’ would make it artificial i.e will turn it into an art object by assigning content to it. Naming is appropriation according to Baraka. He gives the example of the Greeks who began naming Gods and writing stories so that they could have control over how their Gods exist.

For Baraka, God has turned into a static art object from a force that brought everything into existence (the process). Baraka thus states the importance “verbal value” and says that formal art which follows preconceived notions lacks the “that.” For Baraka, “art-ing is what makes art.” (386) but we substitute this verb for an object again, namely the muse.

Baraka demands that art should do more than just make sense, it should “wild grab for more!” (387). He emphasizes the importance of both form and content in art  and says that the only thing that makes art bad is when it becomes artificial and is not concerned like the non-western concept of art with the “natural expression of art” (387).

Baraka states that post the renaissance there is a “loss of prestige for the unseen” (388) human inventions thus replaces “that” which moves us . We only value what takes up space which is where we miss out on the process of art.

Baraka, Imamu. “Hunting is not those heads on the wall” Poetry in Theory: An Anthology1900-   2000. Ed. Tom Cook. USA: Blackkwell Publishing, 2004. Print.



Fatema: The Rhetoric of Silence: Understanding Absence as Presence (Part 2)

The author gives the example from J L Austin’s idea of performativity – How words perform actions to state that silence can perform an action of its own – she provides the example of Jewish weddings where the bride doesn’t say anything but only shows the ring offered by the groom as acceptance and consent for the wedding.

The author moves on to Butler’s analysis of Austin and states that Butler separates speech from the speaker allowing  silence to operate beyond the narrator, thus granting power to the powerless through a discourse of silence. Butler argues that if language creates subjects, silence allows speakers to create new realities.

Butler’s analysis of Austin’s theory further deepens when she uses Austin’s idea of Perlocution and how language has the power to inflict violence or injure (violent language about the body does injure the body in various discourses) and if that stands true then it gives silence, agency too to affect discourse. Butler, here gives the example of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the US military where the declaration of one’s homosexuality is considered as an act of homosexuality itself (thus erasing the gap between speech and act). In the same way, Butler states that staying silent in the military can be equally injurious to homosexuals, therefore giving silence a similar agency as speech.

“Silence and action are both discursive acts that function like speech acts. Because silence can only be seen as rhetorical within its context, we can interpret it in terms of preceding, correspondent, and ensuing action.” (Carroll 28)

The author stresses that silent action works symbolically. She states,
Some actions,then, function as symbols and are figured as speech; they become rhetorical and communicate one’s opinion to an audience.” (Carroll 29)

By “some actions” she refers to actions of protest like burning effigies or even the act of fasting unto death, actions that devoid of speech make a point symbolically.

Silence is also an effective mode of communication in places and situations where  moral, religious or cultural codes abstain marginalized people from voicing their thoughts. The author points out that culture, sometimes, also denies access to language for marginalized groups. Here too, silence plays a crucial role. Like in the case of women, who have been kept out of a patriarchal language structure and the African-Americans who because of the Jim Crow segregation couldn’t voice their disdain openly.

Therefore, the author concludes the chapter claiming that silence is used by the marginalized to undermine the power of social structures that oppress them, thus allowing silence an equally powerful position in rhetoric as speech.

Chapter 3: The Silent Rhetoric of Resistance

The author begins by stating the use of strategic silence in discourses of the marginalized, she states that silence is preferred  “because language is the discourse of the powerful and the language of the marginalized is perceived as insignificant and ineffective. (Carroll 81)

Taking her arguments and applying them to the American Civil Rights movement, the author states that the “communicative silences” (Carroll 88) used in the movement such as Boycotts, sit ins etc were most effective.

The author presents a case study of the laundry worker’s strike in 1965 and shows how silence as empower the marginalized by applying Burke’s idea of silence as symbolic and Barry Brummett’s idea of political strategic silence — a situation where those in power choose to remain silent in order to get attention or distract attention from certain issues. The laundry workers, who were essentially Black women and thus doubly marginalized led the strike which at first went unnoticed but later brought them TV coverage making it an act of civil disobedience. Thus silence can undermine hegemonic social structures, since it “disrupts the continuity of the oppression and oppressive language.” (Carroll 93)

The author further stresses that there are also those who use silence to oppose a corrupted language. These people, though not marginalized tend to speak on behalf of the oppressed. Thomas Merton argues that war and holocausts corrupt language. In this case, the author states, silence can be seen as collaborative and can be criticized as supporting the oppressor. (The author gives the examples of the silence of Germans during the holocaust.)

The author argues that not all silence can be seen as compliance, there is also silence that opposes the oppressor’s language. She refers to Simon Weil’s concept of individual and collective language. Collective language is social in nature and is thus corrupted easily. It “can put forth the empty and meaningless words” (Carroll 96) that is mainly propaganda. Weil states that these words in collective language that end with “ism(s)” don’t actually stand for anything but is the cause of violence and war. The only way to rectify this artificial nature of language is to give proper definitions to terms. Definition allows an establishment of context and therefore to a meaningful discourse. Weil rejects the arbitrariness of language to claim that, “Language and action together are reality” (Carroll 98).

Weil argues that speech enacts domination and thus silence is resistance since it doesn’t allow empty words to flow around in discourse. Thus, silence fills in the gaps where corrupted words need to be eliminated. But the author insists that “we cannot just wait in silence for meaning; silence must become meaning” (Carroll 100).

Silence is the only way to reach and acknowledge the reality that lies outside language and to end suffering,
“Since words, as we use them now, have failed to end the oppression and only contribute to the proliferation of more useless words, silence may be the only option for ending the suffering.” (Carroll 100)

Therefore, since words corrupt reality, silence can be a way to connect to reality again and thus is an appropriate response to propaganda.

Steiner adds to this idea by stating that war and oppression corrupts language to an extent where it no longer communicates and thus only silence can hold meaning. Steiner also emphasis that silence is not only the domain of the philosopher, but the poet who also understands the limits of language, chooses silence.

The author leaves behind a confusing conclusion to her chapter where she equates silent action to silent speech, stating both as forms of resistance. She leads the readers into her next chapter which deals with the silence of death with these lines:
” When resistors choose never to abandon their silence or when they take on imposed silence voluntarily, they risk martyrdom, another type of silent rhetorical action.” (Carroll 105)

P.S – The rest of the chapters of this thesis bear no significance to what I would like to study and thus I have simply skim read them and not annotated them as such.

Fatema: MOOC week 1

Hello! The first time I recognized myself as a writer was in grade 8. I had to write a short book review of Great Expectations by Dickens and I wrote it at the last moment (just an hour before school). It led to my teacher calling it the second best review in class, which was the first time my writing had been acknowledged by someone else. I remember feeling extremely encouraged and from there on I have written with an undying enthusiasm every school essay I was assigned.

Later in college, I started writing poetry (mostly on love as you could have guessed). I realized that I could be so free, so much of myself in writing that it almost became therapeutic to write. I kept writing for my college magazine and also did numerous internships at magazines that dealt with youth, design, travel and culture.

Now, in the final year of my Masters in Literature, I have written more essays/poems/articles/short stories etc. than I can remember and hopefully many more are to come.m

Fatema-The Rhetoric of Silence: Understanding Absence as Presence

Carroll, Laura Beth. The Rhetoric of Silence: Understanding Absence as Presence. Diss. Texas A & M University, 2002. Web. 16 July 2016

  • Analyzing meaningful silences in literature
  • Two kinds of rhetorical silences: Collaborative and Resistant which are used to align oneself with power or resist power.
  • Linguistic dismissal of seeing silence as having any kind of meaning. Silence is only understood as something that facilitates conversation.
  • The researcher attempts to study silence as a positive discursive act laden with meaning.
  • The need for Kairos (?) in the study of the rhetorical discourse of silence.
  • Traditional studies look at silence in two ways. First, as a meaningless negative space that only acts as a boundary to meaningful rhetoric and second, as oppression by denying one the power of speech. Only Greek Rhetoricians look at silence as a tool of power.
  • Even when silence has been studied, it has been studied only at the micro level of conversation (still not viewed as a tool for power but rather as lack). At the macro level only rhetoric has been studied thus putting silence completely out of the rhetorical discourse.
  • In fact, silencing has been viewed as the denial of power to marginal groups. Also, since it is essentially used by women, and rhetoric by men; the western preference of language over silence also  leads to the question of phallogocentrism.
  • The study aims at seeing silence in the rhetoric of Nazi Germany, Racial Segregation in Civil War America, and contemporary feminist movements.
  • The writer uses Kenneth Burke’s idea that language is symbolic action and action is rhetorical. Thus, he expands the scope of rhetoric beyond the realm of the political into everything else too.
  • Burke helps us believe that action functions rhetorically (?) and therefore giving scope to the interpretation of silence, which due to its lack of words has to rely on actions.

(To be continued…)

Fatema: The Literature of Silence

Glicksberg, Charles I. “The Literature of Silence.” The Centennial Review 14.2 (Spring 1970): 166-176. Jstor. 9 June 2016. 

Main Argument: The meaning of a Literature of Silence that emerged in modernism as an answer to the author’s nihilist urge to question the function of writing itself.

Sub Arguments:

  • Literature of Silence is a paradox in itself triggered by a realization of the futility of literature thus creating anti-literature
  • It is born out of a belief in the futility of language itself and a rejection of God or Logos (language) being the center of the universe,
  • Through the rhetoric of futility, the literature of silence leads to the liquidation of literature.
  • Giving examples of works by Sartre and Heidegger, the writer lists the features of such a literature.
  • Giving the example of Samuel Beckett’s Unnameable, the writer exposes the lack of meaning in writing through projecting anonymity of the voice that speaks.
  • The writer compares Hemingway’s hero to Beckett’s anti-hero, while one’s wounds are covered with a sense of honor, the other is wounded all over with only questions and no answers to his disposal.
  • The writer discusses the foggy confusion of space and a brooding futility in Beckett’s monologues.
  • Further discussing the elements in Beckett’s novel, the writer concludes the formula that words betray and any effort to express is in vain.
  • He then looks at the use of the absurd by various writers like Camus, who have nothing to say but still have an urge to say something.

Conclusion: The article is an overview in understanding the elements of what can be called the Literature of Silence in view of popular works by writers like Samuel Beckett and Camus. It explains the need for such a literature and how one can understand it from a philosophical point of view.